Airborne laser technology has uncovered a network of roadways and canals, illustrating a bustling ancient city linking Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex.
The laser scanning revealed a previously undocumented formally planned urban landscape integrating the 1,200-year-old temples.
The Angkor temple complex, Cambodia's top tourist destination and one of Asia's most famous landmarks, was constructed in the 12th century during the mighty Khmer empire. Angkor Wat is a point of deep pride for Cambodians, appearing on the national flag, and was named a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Archaeologists had long suspected that the city of Mahendraparvata lay hidden beneath a canopy of dense vegetation atop Phnom Kulen mountain in Siem Reap province. But the airborne lasers produced the first detailed map of a vast cityscape, including highways and previously undiscovered temples. The discovery was announced by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"No one had ever mapped the city in any kind of detail before, and so it was a real revelation to see the city revealed in such clarity," archaeologist Damian Evans, the study's lead author, said. "It's really remarkable to see these traces of human activity still inscribed into the forest floor many, many centuries after the city ceased to function and was overgrown."
The laser technology, known as lidar, works by firing laser pulses from an aircraft to the ground and measuring the distance to create a detailed, three-dimensional map of the area. Tthe lasers can penetrate thick vegetation and cover swathes of ground far faster than they could be analysed on foot. Lidar has been used to explore other archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge.
In April 2012, researchers loaded the equipment onto a helicopter, which spent days criss-crossing the dense forests from 2,600 feet above ground. A team of Australian and French archaeologists then confirmed the findings with an expedition through the jungle.
Researchers do not yet know why the civilization at Mahendraparvata collapsed. But one current theory is that possible problems with the city's water management system may have driven people out.